Russia's history written in vodka

Museum: In St. Petersburg, there's a spot to explore the drink's role in centuries of culture.

February 23, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - It was the lifeblood of empire, and fuel for revolutionary mobs. It has been banned, curbed and cursed. And it has killed millions of Russians over the centuries, but there is nothing Russians love more.

Vodka, the drink that has put serfs and czars under the table, is still the liquor of choice here - a source of national pride, of intemperate joy and of considerable suffering.

At the Museum of Russian Vodka, curators argue that vodka is more than just the national drink, that it has played an important role in Russian politics and culture.

"The history of Russia has always been closely connected with vodka," says Segei Chentsov, the physician and amateur historian who serves as museum director.

For much of the past 500 years, vodka production has been a state monopoly. Taxes and profits from the beverage helped pay for the building of St. Petersburg in the early 18th century and helped finance the defense of the city (renamed Leningrad) during World War II.

A ban on the consumption of alcohol in 1914 helped undermine the authority of the czar's officials. In the 1920s, taxes on vodka helped shore up the finances of the young Soviet state.

Ice fishermen drink vodka as they wait on the ice. Soldiers traditionally drank vodka before battle. They dip their newly won medals in vodka, to "wash" or bless them.

Vodka is drunk to celebrate the purchase of a new car, moving into a new apartment, even the acquisition of a new washing machine. Most national celebrations revolve around its consumption: a holiday is not over, the saying goes, until the last drop is drunk.

At parties, there are strict rules for the consumption of vodka - from restrictions on what foods can accompany it (bread is good, fruit is bad) to the way it is drunk.

The only proper method to empty a glass of vodka is in a single gulp; Russians are appalled by foreigners who sip it like wine. And they are baffled by guests who refuse a second and third and fourth glass. By tradition, once your host opens a bottle of vodka, he throws away the cap.

Vodka is regarded as more than just a major source of recreation. It is Russia's national tranquilizer. When a tornado hit a Volga River town in the 1980s, local Soviet officials suspended the rules prohibiting vodka sales before 11 a.m; sales instead began at 8 a.m.

The museum traces vodka's history to the early 15th century when Russians tried to imitate a distilled alcoholic beverage that traders brought to Moscow from Genoa. The recipe they developed was simple. They made alcohol from fermented wheat, then added spring water - tossing in a few berries or herbs for taste.

Russia's upper classes delicately referred to it as "wheat wine." But Russia's serfs and tradesmen gave vodka the name that took hold, derived from voda, the word for water.

At first, the Russian Orthodox Church controlled alcohol production and sales. But by the 18th century, during Peter the Great's reign, the sale of vodka became a state monopoly. It remained so for most of the next 300 years.

Vodka was the drink of the lower classes but spread to the nobility. Taverns called kabakhs opened to serve vodka to gentlemen. The minimum order in the mid-17th century was a "basket" - more than six gallons. Baskets were shared among a crowd, of course, and the alcohol content was slightly lower than today's. But no one left a kabakh sober.

Russian leaders more than once tried to ban or restrict the sale of alcohol. Czar Nicholas II outlawed its consumption in 1914 - but was overthrown and killed by the Bolsheviks. Communist Party leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev tried to curb the consumption of all alcohol- and presided over the end of the Soviet Union.

The vodka museum is sponsored by two of Russia's largest vodka distillers. The exhibits include praise from 19th-century scientists for vodka's alleged health benefits, a diorama of a joyful monk distilling alcohol and samples of modern vodka bottles shaped like bears and tank shells. There is little mention of the toll vodka takes in shattered lives and families.

But tour guides say they tell both sides of the story. "We don't propagandize vodka," says Natasha Gordeyeva. "There were some very bad pages in our history."

By some estimates, alcohol consumption in Russia - which means mostly vodka - rose 500 percent between 1995 and 2000. That year, according to government statistics, it reached a new high - the equivalent of more than 10 gallons a year for every adult.

Chentsov suspects that Russians over the centuries became genetically adapted to drinking large amounts of alcohol - and that people who couldn't, didn't survive. And Russians in general are proud of their capacity for drinking. But Russians are far from immune to the effects of alcohol.

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